Best optical illusion of the year

July 12, 2009

I like to use optical illusions for warm-ups and bell ringers, to get students thinking and looking at things a bit differently.

Richard Wiseman said this is the best new optical illusion he’s seen so far this year:

Image by Prof. Kitaoka, 2009

Image by Prof. Kitaoka, 2009

What’s the illusion?  Well, you see those green stripes?  See the blue stripes?  Actually they are the same color.

You don’t think so?  Zoom in.  Or click over to Wiseman’s blog site and see what happens when all the other colors are turned to black.

I know you think you know what you see; what you think you see may not be what you actually see.  Your brain modifies what you think you see, in order to make it appear sensible, and in doing so, it sometimes makes you see things quite differently from what they are.  Don’t forget that.

So, how do we know what we know?  How do we know that what we know is correct?


Insurance experts: Get ready for climate change now

July 12, 2009

Climate change denialism is an astounding ball of contradictions and conundrums.

For example, while most denialists claim to be free-market devotees, they pointedly ignore market indications that climate change is real, aggravated by human actions (and inaction), and that humans can do anything about it.

Look at the insurance industry.  I’ve noted often that, here in Texas, we pay higher premiums on home insurance because climate change has produced worse weather, which costs insurance companies a lot.  Insurance company actuaries are paid to predict the future, reliably.  If they fail, insurance companies die quickly.

The “market” girds itself to fight climate change that governments are not going to move fast enough to prevent.  This will cost you a lot of money.

A good place to go for information about climate change and how it affects is the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, a group that studies the future and is no longer limited (if it ever was) to nuclear future issues.

Insurance in a Climate of Change, The Greening of Insurance in a Warming World, is loaded with information about insurance industry calculations of what the future is, and how insurance companies might and should react to the changes.

How relevant are weather-related natural disasters for insurers, and is there any evidence that the situation is worsening?

Globally, we are seeing about $80 billion/year in weather-related economic losses, of which $20 billion (about a quarter) are insured. This is like a “9/11″ every year. Weather-related losses represent about 90% of all natural disaster losses, and the data I just cited do not include an enormous amount of aggregate losses from small-scale or gradual, non-catastrophic events (e.g., lightning, soil subsidence, gradual sea-level rise).

Inflation-adjusted economic losses from catastrophic events rose by 8-fold between the 1960s and 1990s and insured losses by 17-fold. Losses are increasing faster than insurance premiums. The insured share of total losses has increased dramatically in recent decades, and variability is increasing (a key trouble sign for risk-wary insurers). Weather-related catastrophes have clearly visible adverse effects on insurance prices, and availability. Of particular concern are the so-called “emerging markets” (developing countries and economies in transition”, which already have $375 billion per year in insurance premiums (about 12% of the global market at present, but rising). They are significantly more vulnerable to climate change than are industrialized countries. Emerging markets are the center of growth for the industry, yet they are also the center of vulnerability.

Increased exposures are surely influenced—and no doubt heavily in some areas—by rising demographic and socioeconomic exposures. Yet, the rise in losses has outpaced population, economic growth, and insurance penetration. The science of “attribution analysis” is still in primitive stages, and thus we cannot yet quantify the relative roles of global climate change and terrestrial human activities. Some have prematurely jumped to the conclusion [PDF] that demographic trends explain the entire rise in observed losses. In the year 2005, three independent refereed <!– –>scientific articles drew linkages between hurricane trends and climate change.

Denialists claim weather stations are badly-placed, and so we need not worry about climate change since warming can’t accurately be measured — never mind the worldwide rise in temperatures of atmosphere and oceans.   Denialists claim that the greenhouse effect cannot be blamed on carbon dioxide emissions since carbon dioxide is such a small proportion of the gases in the atmosphere, apparently wholly unaware of the greenhouse effect in atmospheric gases, or unaware that only a thin pane of glass makes a greenhouse work.  Denialists claim that polar bears do not decline precipitously, yet, so all wildlife will be unaffected – nevermind the dramatic shifts in migration patterns of birds and migrating mammals, and the dramatic shift in the arrival of spring.  Denialists claim that Boston Harbor has survived 300 years of human development, so all harbors can survive any increase in ocean levels, nevermind the pending disasters of islands sinking out of site and destroying entire nations in the South Pacific, and never mind the drownings in Bengla Desh at every cyclone.

Most denialists rent apaartments or own homes.  Denying the insurance increases will be more difficult, though I fully expect Anthony Watts and Co. will deny that the insurance company actions and studies of global warming are warranted or accurate.

Is there any good news in all of this?

By all means. Insurers need to look no farther than their roots as founders of the original fire departments, early advocates for building codes and fire safety, etc. That is to say that insurers’ history is all about risk management and loss prevention. The same thinking can apply in the case of climate change. Just as insurers fought fire risks through encouraging fire safety, better modeling, and fire suppression, so too can they be part of the climate change solution. This can take many forms, ranging from providing new insurance products (e.g., for carbon trading or energy savings insurance [PDF]), to promoting energy-efficient and renewable technologies [PDF] that also help prevent everyday losses, to engaging in the broader policy discussion on climate change. Insurers can also be part of improving the underlying science of climate change, modeling, and impacts assessment. We maintain an extensive compilation of examples of how leading insurers are stepping into the arena in a constructive manner.

Alas, there is no insurance against the dithering of climate change denialists.

Go, with all thy internet getting, get thee wisdom.


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